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China’s Arctic Strategy

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The world has witnessed geopolitical developments more than ever since the period when human beings tried to dominate geography by using science and technology. The Anthropocene Age is regarded as a period when nations expanded their interaction with geography and gained the ability to utilize geopolitics as a strategy. The dominance of science and technology on geography has created an accelerating effect on the loss of importance of existing geopolitical orders and the emergence of new geopolitical orders in different regions. Today, one of the regions that can shift the center of gravity of the Current order established by the global system and attract the attention of many countries is the Arctic Region.

As a result of the global warming in the world, glaciers are melting rapidly and a change is taking place that can trigger climate change. This situation causes the melting of the glaciers in the Arctic Region, which is located in the north of the world, and a change in its geography. The region, which was formerly known for climate, biology, and anthropological research, is presently considered for new transportation routes, hydrocarbon resources, and economic activities. The region’s growing geopolitical significance attracts actors of global system. China, for instance, is one of the countries that responded quickly to adjust to the region’s changing geopolitics.

China’s interest in the Arctic began through scientific research. Beijing, which made a diplomatic move by signing the Svalbard Treaty in 1925, has been conducting expeditions in the North Pole with the Xue Long Icebreaker since the 1990s.[1] China, whose wish to become an observer country was accepted at the Kiruna Ministerial Meeting organized by the “Arctic Council” formed by the countries in the Arctic region in 2013,[2] increased its engagement in the region and sought new cooperation opportunities.

The “White Paper,” which China released as an official document in 2018, was the most critical step in bringing China’s interest in the Arctic Region from a scientific and diplomatic level to an economic and geopolitical level The document, which defines China as a “Near Arctic State”, refers to the Arctic shipping routes in the region as the “Polar Silk Road” and defines these routes as the third main transportation corridor for the Belt-Road Project initiated by China in 2013. The significance of the emerging transit routes in the Arctic was highlighted in the text with the following words:[3]

“The Arctic shipping routes comprise the Northeast Passage, Northwest Passage, and the Central Passage. As a result of global warming, the Arctic shipping routes are likely to become important transport routes for international trade. China respects the legislative, enforcement and adjudicatory powers of the Arctic States in the waters subject to their jurisdiction. China maintains that the management of the Arctic shipping routes should be conducted in accordance with treaties including the UNCLOS and general international law and that the freedom of navigation enjoyed by all countries in accordance with the law and their rights to use the Arctic shipping routes should be ensured. China maintains that disputes over the Arctic shipping routes should be properly settled in accordance with international law.”

In Beijing’s last five-year development plan, which outlines China’s economic priorities, the Arctic was highlighted as a key area for collaboration. China’s growth of scientific research, collaboration, and economic activity in the area was underlined in the 14th Five-Year Plan, which will cover the years 2021-2025.[4]

There are two key reasons for China’s growing interest in the region in recent years and its frequent mention of it in official publications. These are energy and trade security. China became the world’s largest exporting country as a result of economic and cultural reforms that began in the 1980s. The Chinese economy has been growing steadily for years, thanks to its success in opening trade routes and ensuring the energy flow that its industries need. In reality, China’s leaders have formed their foreign policy initiatives around these two aspects. For this reason, the Arctic considered significant in terms of both energy and transit, has entered China’s radar.

Considering the Arctic Ocean’s rich underground resources and strategic importance, which covers around 6% of the Earth’s surface, the region has a major influence on global geopolitics that is inversely proportionate to its size. The region holds an estimated 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural gas reserves, 13% of global conventional oil reserves, and one trillion dollars’ worth of rare earth minerals.[5] This wealth is seen as essential to China’s energy security strategy. As a matter of fact, China makes substantial energy investments together with Russia, which has an area of approximately 5 million km2 in the Arctic Region and 24,140 km of the total 37,653 km of the Arctic coast.

Due to the deterioration of European-Russian relations following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Moscow and Beijing deepened their Arctic collaboration, making China a prominent player in Russia’s Arctic initiatives. The most important project of this partnership, the Yamal LNG Project, has been China’s first overseas megaproject since the announcement of the Belt-Road Project. China National Petroleum Corporation has a 20% stake and the Silk Road Fund has a 9.9% stake in the Yamal Project, which covers oil and gas exploration and development, natural gas processing, liquefaction, marketing and transportation. The ship, which departed from Russia’s Yamal facility in 2020 using the Northern Sea Route, reached China. With the energy coming from the region, Beijing has crossed a notable milestone in its goal of diversifying its energy supply.[6]

Another essential component of China’s Arctic policy is route security, which is one of the most critical considerations for exports. In this regard, the shortest possible navigation time plays a vital role. The traditional route of a cargo ship moving from China to Europe is from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean, from there to the Suez Canal, then to the Mediterranean and from there to the port where it will arrive. Considering Rotterdam as the last stop of the line in question, the voyage time takes approximately 45 days. However, a cargo ship traveling to Rotterdam through the Arctic Ocean may arrive in 32 days, cutting the journey duration by 13 days. Furthermore, factors such as the US-controlled Strait of Malacca on the Pacific and Indian Oceans, as well as some pirate activity in the Indian Ocean, reduce this route’s efficiency in China’s eyes. The Arctic Route, on the other hand, increases Beijing’s commitment to this region due to its road safety and lower distance advantage. In addition, today, where communication and information technologies are increasingly considered an element of geopolitics, the short distance and safe route offered by the Arctic Region has attracted and will attract China to the region in terms of submarine cables.

In the global order that tries to move from a unipolar world to a multipolar world, the Arctic Region will come to the fore with its many factors. In particular, the spread of tensions between China and the USA to many parts of the world indicates that the North Pole will also warm up in the future. The only force likely to hinder the importance of the new geopolitics emerging as a result of new icebreaker ship technology and the gradual melting of glaciers will be climate and nature.

[1] Sanna Kopra, “The Arctic Institute’s China Series”, The Arctic Institute, https://www.thearcticinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/The-Arctic-Institute-China-Series-2020.pdf, (Date of Accession: 26.03.2022).

[2] “China”, Arctic Council Secretariat, https://arctic-council.org/about/observers/non-arctic-states/peoples-republic-of-china/, (Erişim Tarihi: 26.03.2022).

[3] “China’s Arctic Policy”, The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, http://english.www.gov.cn/archive/white_paper/2018/01/26/content_281476026660336.htm, (Date of Accession: 26.03.2022).

[4] Marc Lanteigne, “The Polar Policies in China’s New Five-Year Plan”, The Diplomat, https://thediplomat.com/2021/03/the-polar-policies-in-chinas-new-five-year-plan/, (Date of Accession: 26.03.2022).

[5] “A Strategic Blueprint for the Arctic”, Department of The Navy, https://media.defense.gov/2021/Jan/05/2002560338/-1/-1/0/ARCTIC%20BLUEPRINT%202021%20FINAL.PDF/ARCTIC%20BLUEPRINT%202021%20FINAL.PDF, (Date of Accession: 26.03.2022).

[6] Jessica Jaganathan-Ekaterina Kravtsova, “Yamal LNG on Fast Boat to China as Northern Route Melts Early”, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-lng-asia-idUSKBN22V2CL, (Date of Accession: 26.03.2022).

Mustafa Cem KOYUNCU
Mustafa Cem Koyuncu, Karabük Üniversitesinde Uluslararası İlişkiler bölümünde Master öğrencisi olup Hint-Pasifik Bölgesi, ABD-Çin Rekabeti, uluslararası güvenlik, jeopolitik ve stratejik araştırmalar alanları üzerinde çalışmalar yapmaktadır. Karabük Üniversitesi’nde eğitimine başlamadan önce, Boğaziçi Üniversitesinde Lisans eğitimini tamamlamıştır. Özel sektörde yöneticilik tecrübesi kazanmasının ardından Koyuncu, kariyerine ANKASAM’da devam etmektedir. Koyuncu, ileri seviyede İngilizce bilmektedir.